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Engineers Have A Lot to Consider for Design for SustainabilityEngineers Have A Lot to Consider for Design for Sustainability

Sustainable design is becoming a requirement for many OEMs, not just a “nice to have,” say sustainability experts from Jabil.

Daphne Allen

September 14, 2022

12 Min Read
Jabil Sustainability
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Consumer interest in sustainable choices continues to grow. According to the 2021 Global Sustainability Study conducted by Simon-Kucher & Partners, sustainability is considered to be an important purchase criterion for 60 percent of global consumers, and 61% for U.S. consumers. A 2022 Deloitte survey of UK adults found that 40% of respondents have chosen brands that have environmentally sustainable practices/values, an increase of 6% from its 2021 survey. And 30% have chosen low carbon emission and/or shared modes of transport, up 11% from 2021.

Such consumer interest prompts original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and their design engineers to consider sustainable practices, such as sustainable design, materials, manufacturing, packaging, and more. Design News reached out to Sheri Dillard, Director of Engineering Services, and Michael Kiely, Principal Device Development Engineer, both with Jabil, for their perspectives on how design engineers can help their companies and brands make strides in sustainability. Dillard has more than 22 years of experience in supply chain and commodity management, and since 2019, she has worked in technology and design engineering to create a stronger link between design, supply chain, and supporting use of sustainability tools and best practices. Kiely has been with Jabil Healthcare since 2013, and he has led the development of the Design for Sustainability process at Jabil Healthcare that optimizes product designs for sustainability and the circular economy at the early design stage to deliver more sustainable products for Jabil’s customers.

What is driving the push toward sustainable design? Consumers or other purchasers, specific regulations or standards in specific markets, or other drivers?

 

Dillard: There are several factors driving the push toward sustainable design. First, OEMs have a genuine interest in improving their products’ end-of-life story. More and more, OEMs are concerned about what happens to their products after they have reached the end of their useful life, so they are emphasizing designs with elements of recyclability, reusability, and durability and an overall lower environmental footprint. Making less carbon-intensive design choices helps companies cut their organizational greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—an important goal for many OEMs from both a sustainability and a compliance standpoint. As sustainability regulations around the world increase both in number and in their requirements for corporate emissions reporting, we expect that sustainable design will not just be an option for OEMs—it will be a requirement.

Companies are also feeling pressure from consumers to offer products that have been designed sustainably. Consumers understand they have a part to play in creating a circular economy, whether it be through curbside recycling or taking their used device back to a collection site; they increasingly want companies to give them the opportunity to fulfill that role by giving their products at least some element of circularity.

What requirements should design engineers consider: recyclability, separation of components, reusability or increased durability, use of recycled content, or support of replacement parts or repairs, or other requirements?

Kiely: It’s important to keep in mind that there is no one change in material that design engineers can make or a single additional step they can take to make product designs “sustainable.” Every design, whether it is for a medical device or product packaging, must be evaluated holistically to determine where emissions and waste can be eliminated. A few best practices for design engineers to consider when designing for sustainability include:

  • Material selection. This is one of the earliest, and most impactful, decisions in the product design process. Focus on selecting materials that can be collected for recycling at the end of the product life cycle to ensure the materials have a lower carbon footprint overall. Additionally, consider the environmental impact of the material’s production, the sustainability credentials of your suppliers, and the emissions involved in the material’s supply chain.

  • Device disassembly. To ensure an easy recycling process, move away from assembly processes like chemical bonding and ultrasonic and laser welding. This will make it simpler to separate components and materials at the end of their life cycle and, considering they are carbon-intensive processes, save emissions from the overall footprint. Also, avoid lubricants, solvents, inks, and painted parts that could contaminate entire batches of post-consumer plastics, and reduce the use of screws or bolts to save time in the disassembly processes. If screws are a must, use ferrous materials, which can be more easily segregated post use via electromagnets.

  • Modular design. OEMs are increasingly introducing durable, reusable devices to their product offerings. Many of these products still contain parts that must be replaced or upgraded at some point in their life cycle, from lithium batteries in electric vehicles to pre-filled cartridges in Jabil’s Qfinity autoinjector platform. With modular design, the replaceable components and the durable components are kept separate, so the disposable component can be easily (and in the case of medical devices, safely) swapped out without the entire device needing repair or replacement.

  • Component reduction. Simply using fewer parts in a product’s design is another great way to make your product more sustainable. Using fewer components and, potentially, a lighter final product means a lower carbon footprint during manufacturing, assembly, and transportation and decreased overall costs.

  • Reshoring or nearshoring supply chains. Using suppliers closer to manufacturing sites and your end market is another way to reduce a product’s overall carbon footprint. Suppliers’ locations should be a consideration in the material selection phase. Once a relationship has been developed with suppliers, take the time to dive deeper into their sustainability practices within their own organization and supply chain, and see if there’s an opportunity to localize the value chain even further.

Do engineers need to consider or take steps toward use of low-carbon-footprint manufacturing, near-shore manufacturing, additive manufacturing, or newer forms of manufacturing?

Kiely: All of these options can help improve the sustainability of product designs. To ensure our sites are using energy as efficiently as possible, therefore emitting as few greenhouse gases as possible, our global energy team evaluates the energy use of each of our facilities and its manufacturing processes to determine where we could be making equipment upgrades or process changes to use less electricity.

Additive manufacturing is one way to create innovative new components while reducing the overall number of parts used in a product design and creating a lighter-weight, less emissions-intensive product. With 3D printing, design engineers can create a part in the exact size and shape they need that could not be made with traditional manufacturing, even avoiding screws and glue that can make recycling more difficult.

As mentioned previously, manufacturing closer to end markets can reduce the emissions generated during transportation and should be a consideration for OEMs with a larger footprint.

What should engineers keep in mind during material selection? Elimination of materials of concern?

Kiely: When engineers are selecting materials for their product design, they should start with the end in mind. Where will these materials go when the end consumer is finished using the product? How can the product be designed so as many materials as possible reenter the circular economy? These questions are especially critical for OEMs producing large volumes of single-use products. Engineers must engage internal and/or external partners with recycling expertise from the beginning of the material selection process to understand potential challenges that exist in recycling and use that knowledge to guide their material selection.

To streamline and formalize the selection process, the Jabil Healthcare team created a seven-step assessment process used across the organization to determine which materials can most effectively meet a product’s performance and sustainability needs:

  1. Compile component requirements for the product design.

  2. Create a list of materials that meet all the requirements for that design.

  3. Upload the materials’ datasheet to the organization-wide sustainability database.

  4. Assess the carbon footprint to produce each material.

  5. Share this information with circular economy partners, including those who handle materials at the end of their life cycle.

  6. Assess the sustainability credentials of materials suppliers and producers.

  7. Review feedback from circular economy partners and suppliers. Move forward with the most sustainable design choice.

As OEMs shift to a sustainable design approach, it is critical that they collaborate across their organizations and with their supply chain partners to identify the materials with the lowest environmental impact that will still function as needed within the product. As mentioned previously, Design for Sustainability also encourages eliminating excess materials and streamlining design through additive manufacturing and bonds like shape memory resins.

Should engineers be developing designs that use lower power than previous designs or alternative power?

Dillard: As manufacturers, it’s important that we examine all the ways our product designs can generate fewer GHG emissions, including by consuming less energy. It’s also critical that we address the energy used in the manufacturing process itself. The electricity consumed during that process contributes a significant portion of a product’s overall emissions. Changing to more energy efficient production methods or using renewable energy at the manufacturing facility can be another way to improve the sustainability of a product design.

Across our sites, Jabil uses building management systems to monitor electricity consumption of specific machines and production lines, allowing us to identify the heaviest energy users and replace inefficient equipment. We are also increasing our use of renewable energy through a two-pronged produce and procure strategy. Some facilities, like in Clinton, MA, are working to install rooftop solar panels, which will offset 15% of the site’s total GHG emissions. Meanwhile, our site in Bray, Ireland—which won the 2021 Shingo Prize for organizational excellence—uses 100% renewable energy procured from a local utilities provider.

Are there any product categories that will be obsolete or replaced by other more sustainable categories? What industries or markets will be impacted the most?

Dillard: Sustainable design is becoming a requirement for many OEMs, not just a “nice to have.” It is a complete shift in mindset, so few, if any, industries will be left unimpacted by this focus on sustainability.

The packaging market has been a leader in reducing single-use plastic and innovating the use of new sustainable materials, but other industries are quickly catching up. From consumer electronics and energy storage to cloud computing and medical devices, there is commitment to sustainable design across the board.

Kiely: The medical device market is one industry that is beginning to adopt sustainable design more broadly, particularly reusable devices that leverage modular design. One example is Qfinity, Jabil’s connected auto-injector. With this system, disposable cartridges prefilled with a patient’s exact prescription dosage are inserted into an injector that can be used up to 100 times. The disposable and reusable elements remain separate to avoid safety concerns and make refills simpler. By using fewer plastics and metals in its production and reducing single-use waste, the Qfinity auto-injector has a roughly 60% smaller carbon footprint than does a comparable disposable auto-injector.

What skills should engineers develop to support a circular economy?

Dillard: One of the most important skills an engineer can develop to support the development of a circular economy is the ability to collaborate. Engineers must work with partners inside and outside their organization who have expertise in recycling and plastic composites to understand how materials are recycled as well as the types of materials that can be recycled together. Similarly, engineers should prioritize continuing education to stay up to date on the latest, most-relevant recycling technologies and reusable and sustainable materials.

Finally, leveraging supply chain tools that provide an overview of a product’s entire life cycle can allow engineers to map the life cycle with the lowest overall environmental impact. Throughout the design process, engineers should ask the question, “How can I minimize the carbon footprint of this product?” and allow the answer to guide their decisions.

While the benefits of sustainable design can be measured in less waste, lower greenhouse gas emissions, etc., what (additional) upfront costs are incurred with modifying design engineering practices to more sustainable designs? For example, would there be higher costs for some environmentally friendly materials, additional testing and quality control procedures, or initially longer design cycles to tweak/modify processes?

Kiely: Shifting to a sustainable design approach does come with some upfront costs. More time is required to conduct a life cycle assessment of the product, identify carbon intensive materials and processes, and then optimize the product to reduce these as far as possible. All of this needs to be completed within the constraints of meeting all the other user, functional, regulatory, and commercial requirements of the device.

More-sustainable materials can also bring added cost. For instance, plastic resins that use bio-based content are typically more expensive than more traditional resins that use non-renewable content, predominantly due to lower demand. Additionally, the global supply of post-use material, including post-consumer resin, is limited due to the low levels of recycling worldwide. OEMs looking to integrate these materials into their sustainability strategy could find that what is available may be expensive. However, in the long term, implementing these changes to move toward sustainable design should be viewed as an investment that yields both sustainability and financial benefits.

From a manufacturing site perspective, upfront investment is required to develop recycling facilities, segregate scrap material at source, and introduce energy saving and emissions reducing measures on site. However, this initial capital investment is easily recouped through reduced waste charges, lower energy bills, the sale of recycled material in the circular economy, or reuse of the recycled material in the same manufacturing site.

Dillard: When identifying sustainable materials for new product designs, intelligent digital supply chain solutions can provide an end-to-end view of the entire supply chain and gather on-demand data about materials, components, and suppliers all in one place. These types of tools help procurement teams strike the balance between sustainability and cost effectiveness.

Working with supply chain partners is important to determine where and how the materials that will be recycled from your product design will be used. To avoid wasting energy in the material recapture process, it’s important to only collect materials that have been identified for a specific post-use purpose (i.e., recycled plastic that will be converted to textiles). There is a degree of flexibility in the design phase that is lost once a product moves onto the manufacturing floor; it becomes much more difficult and expensive to add sustainability into a product after its designed, so the design phase is the time to engage every possible stakeholder in the product life cycle and determine where emissions can be eliminated.

Perhaps most importantly, the sustainable design process can help inspire OEMs to make larger sustainable changes throughout their organization. Life cycle assessments done in the product design process could illuminate the possibility for improved logistics, or OEMs could partner with manufacturers like Jabil to leverage their combined spend volumes and influence supply chain partners to make sustainable changes within their own businesses. By committing to changes that lower the impact of product designs, OEMs will see a return on their investment in their manufacturing and the environment.

 

About the Author(s)

Daphne Allen

Daphne Allen is editor-in-chief of Design News. She previously served as editor-in-chief of MD+DI and of Pharmaceutical & Medical Packaging News and also served as an editor for Packaging Digest. Daphne has covered design, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, and regulatory issues for more than 25 years.  Follow her on Twitter at @daphneallen and reach her at [email protected].

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